Former Bosnian officials who handed over six members of the so-called “Algerian Group” to U.S. authorities, who in turn transferred them to the Guantanamo Bay military detention center, are facing an inquiry into their actions, which the Sarajevo Prosecutor’s Office describes as illegal.
The Prosecutor’s Office launched the inquiry in late June, accusing former Bosnian officials – including former Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader and foreign minister Zlatko Lagumdzija, former deputy interior minister Tomilsav Limov and various employees of the Sarajevo prison – of illegally handing the six suspects to U.S. authorities in January 2002. The six had already been acquitted of terrorism-related charges by a Bosnian court for lack of evidence.
Members of the Algerian Group are still being held without charge at Guantanamo Bay. Unlike many other Guantanamo detainees, the six were not caught while engaged in a combat situation in Afghanistan, nor is there any known evidence that they fought in Afghanistan at any time. The United States suspects the six Algerian-born naturalized Bosnian citizens of ties to Algeria’s Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA). The Sarajevo Prosecutor’s Office timed its mid-June inquiry to coincide with a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to grant Guantanamo detainees the possibility of challenging their detention in a U.S. federal court.
According to the office of Chief Canton Prosecutor Branko Sljivar, the former Bosnian officials are accused of unlawful deprivation of freedom and violation of rights. “Their acts were motivated by ethnic discrimination since the injured parties belonged to a Semitic group, originating from African and Asian countries,” the prosecution said (Oslobodjenje [Sarajevo], July 25).
The opposition SDP, however, insists that the case was a “classic political witch-hunt by the Sarajevo Canton Prosecution” in advance of the upcoming October 5 local elections. “It’s indicative that the investigation is only being launched against two SDP members while key members of other political parties, now in the government, who were most responsible, have been left untouched,” the SDP said in a statement to local media (Oslobodjenje, July 27).
The six Algerians – Bensayah Belkacem, Boudella el Hajj, Lakhdar Boumediene, Sabir Mahfouz Lahmar, Mustafa Ait Idr and Mohammad Nechle – were arrested in October 2001 on suspicion of plotting attacks against the U.S. and British embassies in Sarajevo. The embassies at the time were temporarily closed due to a perceived security threat emanating from intelligence indicating possible terrorist attacks. After Bosnian authorities arrested the six, an investigation showed five of the six had gained Bosnian citizenship fraudulently. Local authorities revoked these citizenships (and the permanent residency status of the sixth suspect) in January 2002, shortly after their arrest.
Later that month, a Bosnian court cleared them of all charges, citing lack of evidence. But just hours before releasing them from custody, Bosnian authorities were pressured to hand them over to U.S. authorities, who then transferred them to Guantanamo Bay.
Early next month, the Algerian six will be given a one-day chance to present their cases before a U.S. federal court, most likely via video link from Guantanamo. At the same time, U.S. authorities will be called on to provide concrete evidence to support the continued detention without charges of the Algerian Group. Should this fail, judges could order their release. It is expected that the court will make a ruling by the end of the year.
Robert Kirsch, the legal adviser to the six, told reporters he was preparing a list of witnesses for the hearing, and that the group already had prepared recorded and written testimonies. “There are persons from the former Bosnian government who were present when the decision was made to hand over the six to the U.S. They knew about the pressure and blackmail from the US government, such as [from] Christopher Hoh of the US embassy, who threatened to withdraw US financial and military support from Bosnia if the six were not handed over,” Kirsch said (Dnevni Avaz [Sarajevo], September 4).
Kirsch also said that the U.S. government had already given the court the official charges and evidence, but classified the documents as top secret. Kirsch believes that the only evidence against the six was their connection to Islamic aid organizations suspected of ties to terrorist groups. The Washington Post reported on August 21, 2006, that U.S. charges that the six were planning to bomb the U.S. embassy had been dropped from their files.
Kirsch, who took the case in 2004, claims that at the time of their arrest, the six “didn’t even know each other. Some of these men met for the first time in Guantanamo… I find myself where I was four years ago: trying to get someone in our government to explain why these men are being held… My clients have been a vehicle for a global civics lesson on the rule of law” (Monadnock Ledger-Transcript [Peterborough New Hampshire, August 5).
A retired Bosnian Federation intelligence agent who led the case against the six told the Jamestown Foundation (on condition of anonymity) that some of those arrested had been either in contact with, or close associates of, Osama bin Laden and other high-ranking al-Qaeda figures, including Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn (a.k.a. Abu Zubaydah), who was tasked with recruiting veteran fighters from Afghanistan for the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia. Zubaydah is currently being held at Guantanamo. However, this information was based on U.S. intelligence reports. Bosnian judicial records indicated no phone records of calls to Abu Zubaydah, and U.S. authorities refused to share the transcripts they said would verify the claims (Washington Post, August 21).
The handover of the Algerian Six to the U.S. forces in Bosnia was part of Bosnia’s effort to join the War on Terrorism, an effort initiated and pressed upon Bosnia by the United States. At the time Bosnia was ruled by the moderate SDP and not the Bosniak Nationalist Party (BNP), which had supported the arrival of foreign fighters from Muslim countries during the civil war. Had the BNP been in power, the handover likely would never have taken place. The case remains significant in Bosnia as it is being used as political fuel against the SDP as elections approach. If their case reaches a U.S. Federal Court, a possible ruling for release could also set a precedent for judicial proceedings related to the War on Terrorism.